SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — As much as Sanford Health Dr. Michael Wilde wishes the global COVID-19 pandemic was over, he said both the general public and health systems aren’t close to being done. 

“We’re not done with COVID,” Wilde said. “It’d be nice to have it in the rearview, but the reality is we are organisms on a planet. We can certainly be victim to whatever else is out there.” 

The latest COVID-19 concern is the delta variant (B.1.617.2), which was first identified in India. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified the delta variant as a “variant of concern.”

As of Thursday, South Dakota does not have a confirmed coronavirus case of the delta variant. The North Dakota Department of Health confirmed its first case of the delta variant on Thursday. It has also been confirmed in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wyoming. The CDC estimates that nearly 32% of the variants in Region 8, which includes South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, are the delta variant. 

“It’s all around us and it’s coming,” Avera Dr. David Erickson said. “The CDC firmly believes over the next few weeks, it’ll be the dominant variant, close to 100-percent.” 

The Chief Medical and Innovation Officer at Avera said the delta variant is spread more easily and causes a higher rate of hospitalizations. 

Erickson said the race between the vaccine and the variants remains. He noted South Dakota is following the national trend in COVID-19 vaccination trends. 

“The younger you get in the population, the less likely they’ve been vaccinated,” Erickson said. “This is a dangerous, potentially deadly, delta variant. Now is the time to take action.”  

Wilde said the vaccine is the best defense against the delta variant and hopefully future variants. 

“Your odds are markedly better if you have been vaccinated and I’d encourage people to do that,” Wilde said.  

Avera, Sanford prepared for increased cases 

According to the South Dakota Department of Health, 51% of the population 12-years and older is fully vaccinated and 364,704 total persons have been administered at least one dose of the vaccine. 

That leaves more than 50% of the entire population (including children under 12) unvaccinated. That number, combined with the delta variant, has both Avera and Sanford prepared for an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. 

Avera officials, Erickson said, are concerned about the “large unvaccinated population.” 

“They can and will get sick and may end up in the hospital and potentially have death,” Erickson said. 

Sanford officials, according to Wilde, are anticipating “some higher numbers of cases based on our vaccine rates.” 

“I hope that’s not a real high number, but each case is someone that’s ill and we want to prevent that if we can,” Wilde said. 

Erickson said the vaccines give “longer and better protection” than natural immunity. He said anyone who has previously been infected with COVID-19 is still “vulnerable.”  

“The deaths are preventable if you get the vaccine,” Erickson stressed. “Please get vaccinated. They are safe. They are effective.” 

Tracking the variants 

Wilde said viruses are constantly reproducing and will embrace any survival advantages that develop. The World Health Organization has started naming notable variants after letters of the Greek alphabet.

According to Wilde, the naming structure of variants with the Greek alphabet will become the most popular. The South Dakota Department of Health still reports variant cases through the science-based number names like B.1.1.7, which is the leading variant with 170 confirmed cases. 

“The numeric system is based on the science of the genes that are being changed in and out,” Wilde said. “However, that can get a little cumbersome for people to recognize and it sounds like number soup after a little while.” 

Wilde said there’s a United States screening methodology for looking for variants. 

“We may get requested to send a certain percentage of samples for further testing,” Wilde said. “It’s a random sampling that occurs throughout the United States, working with state and federal agencies, to make sure we have good surveillance in the United States.” 

Erickson said Avera’s lab can also test for variants and they pass that information onto the state department of health. 

As vaccine rates have slowed, more mutations of the virus are possible. The nightmare scenario is still a threat Wilde admitted, noting health systems would see bigger issues if one of these variants escapes vaccine immunity. 

“We have to think about that, but I don’t talk about that. It’s a spooky thing,” Wilde said. “It’s a possibility which is why we want to put these variants to rest.”